By Yinka Ibukun
LAGOS (Reuters) - John Auta shelters every night in a Lagos liquor store and dreams of a passport to riches in Europe as a top footballer.
Football comes to South Africa when the World Cup begins next Friday (June 11) but many of the continent's young hopefuls still believe a ticket to Europe is the only hope of realizing their mothballing dreams. John is one of many.
Despite the pride surrounding the biggest sporting event held on the continent, the majority of players in the West African squads play for European clubs, reinforcing a view that only those who make it out of Africa can make it big.
It is a journey pitted with challenges.
"If you play football, Lagos is where you can make it," said John Auta, a 19-year-old Nigerian who represented his country in the Homeless World Cup in Milan last year and is hoping for an invitation from a European agent on the back of his performance.
"You have the agents, you have the people. You get your paper and before you know it, you're in Europe. Lagos is the gateway to success," Auta said from behind the counter of a liquor store where he stays each night.
Like many in Nigeria's most populous city, Auta is from somewhere else. He came from the northern city of Kaduna after his parents were killed in a car crash, one of more than 1,000 newcomers to Lagos each day, adding to a population of over 14 million all competing for limited jobs and resources.
Football is his great hope.
His Milan performance caught the eye of a Czech coach who sent him an invitation to go and train. But he was unable to afford the visa fee, let alone the plane ticket.
A Hungarian agent who also spotted him in Milan has promised an invitation once he has secured accommodation, but money remains a problem.
Despite the many diversions of a city like Lagos, Auta is focused. He does not drink or smoke. He trains as often as he can on a small concrete pitch.
Search and Groom, a Nigerian civil society group that helps frustrated talent, selected Auta to represent Nigeria at the Homeless World Cup last year. He missed out on the tournament the previous year in Australia due to a canceled flight.
"It felt good wearing a jersey with my name. I felt like I was playing for the Super Eagles," Auta said, referring to Nigeria's national team. "I was proud to represent my country."
But Search and Groom lacks the funds to send Auta to Europe. His Italian and Australian visas are so precious they have increased his passport's value on the black market and he keeps it locked away at a friend's house.
Like much of Africa, Nigeria is soccer mad.
Most people support an English premier league side and many young hopefuls see the success of Nigerians such as Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel and Nwankwo Kanu, one of the most decorated African players, as within their reach.
But fake agents and bogus organizations abound, ready to exploit the dreams of young hopefuls.
"I see a lot of people who do funny things, like telling poor kids if you want to be a star footballer, come and pay 3,000 naira ($20)," said Yomi Kuku, Search and Groom's founder.
"Hundreds of thousands of poor people go to pay into the banks ... It is so embarrassing," he said.
Kuku founded Search and Groom eight years ago in Ajegunle, a sprawling working class Lagos neighborhood that has produced top players including former national coach Samson Siasia and Emmanuel Amuneke, 1994 African Footballer of the Year.
"My hope for John is that he'll achieve his aim in life. He wants to be a footballer and wants to go back to school ... He is disciplined but time isn't on his side. We don't have funding to help him but we've reached out to our contacts," Kuku said.
Even for those young African players lucky enough to have the financial backing to get to Europe, challenges remain.
European clubs need to be convinced they are on to a real star before they will consider negotiating the bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining permits including visas, agents say.
"Work permits require a lot of documents and often the documents they ask for have to be sent from Nigeria," said Joseph Nnachi, a FIFA-certified agent, alluding to the challenge of finding records in largely uncomputerized government offices.
"It is not enough for African players to be as good or even twice as good as European players. They need to be 10 times better," said Nnachi, who is based in Britain.
Poor record keeping in Nigeria and other African nations can lead to questions over documents such as birth certificates too.
When smaller European clubs buy African players they often plan to resell them later to larger clubs. Once the player regularizes his status in Europe and gains experience, it is easier for him to move from one team to another.
But that can make a 25-year-old African player a poor investment, deepening the incentive to lie about age.
"European clubs have it at the back of their minds that the African player is older than he says he is. At 25 or 26, his worth drops," said Nnachi.
Auta has age on his side. Others have seen their hopes fade.
Athletic and youthful, Rufai Abubakar, 38, could pass for half his age, and indeed he has. After trials in Senegal and Ivory Coast and playing for teams in Ghana and Turkey, he is just making peace with the fact he will not be a top footballer.
"Football is about chance," said Abubakar, who has set up a tailor's shop with the experience gained while in Senegal.
"If they asked me to speak to a thousand boys who wanted to be footballers, I would tell them to get an education first."
(For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://af.reuters.com/ )
(Editing by Nick Tattersall/Jon Bramley)